Spoilers for last night’s How I Met Your Mother coming up:
The character of Barney is a gift an a challenge for How I Met Your Mother. On the one hand, he’s hilarious, Neil Patrick Harris plays him brilliantly and he has largely put the show on the larger pop-cultural map. On the other hand, he’s sometimes a tough fit in a show that’s largely about emotional realism: he’s a sitcom character shoehorned into a romantic comedy. The obvious read on this is that if the rest of the stories are grounded enough, Barney has free rein to operate on a different plane of reality than everyone else, and thus bring the laughs.
But what if the fact that Barney acts like a sitcom character is his realistic emotional grounding? What if he’s become a sitcom character as a way of dealing with the realities of his life?
This was the premise of “Cleaning House,” an episode that brought Barney back to his roots, but that required a lot of juggling of real-live-boy Barney with sitcom-character Barney. The trip home to help his mother (Frances Conroy) pack for a move again brings up the old fiction about his real father (whom she told him as a child was Bob Barker). Barney reveals, over the course of the episode, that despite his past actions, he knows it isn’t true: “I’m not crazy.”
OK, but after we find a real father for Barney’s brother James (Wayne Brady), Barney snaps back into sitcom mode, believing that Sam Gibbs (Ben Vereen) is his father too: “I’m black!” This pretty much seems like the behavior of a crazy person, or a wacky sitcom character, or Navin R. Johnson from The Jerk.
It’s quite whiplash-y, but the episode at least provides a grounding and explanation for Barney’s behavior here, and possibly for his entire behavior and function as a character. Barney grew up listening to the baroque and ingeniously improvised lies his mother spun for him to protect the feelings of a lonely, unathletic kid without a dad in the house. Maybe he still believes some of the lies, maybe on some level he knows none of them are true, but they’re what he has.
And it’s not too hard to draw a line from that to the wild stories, and the unflagging belief in his own awesomeness, of the adult Barney. (HIMYM, after all, has always been a story about unreliable narrators and the gap between self-perception and reality; we’ve seen that Ted sometimes gives us an idealized version of his own story, so it’s fitting that Barney has created an idealized version of his entire life.) He lives his life on an implausible level of reality because that’s how he experienced his mother’s love. His way of seeing life has been shaped by hearing her legen–wait for it–ds.
I’m not sure I bought the sentimental ending (Barney’s telling Loretta that she’s his real dad is sweet, but I don’t see why he needed to make the gesture of ripping up the paper with his father’s information), the culture-clash jokes around the “Stand By Me” singalong were pretty obvious (again, the kind of thing done before and better in The Jerk) and the rest of the episode’s subplots were very slight. But the attempt to make Barney into a real boy–or at least to explain how he came to be the fake boy that he is–gives me guarded hope that HIMYM might be getting back on track.